How White Guilt Cripples Assessment of First Black President
by BILL SIEGEL
August 1, 2012
FSM Blast from the Past: This article was originally published on July 26, 2009.
America was very proud of itself last November when it elected its first black (or at least half-black) president, Barack Obama. Liberal media outlets (excuse the redundancy) framed this event as one of our greatest national cathartic exercises of democracy. They worked directly with Obama and his media manipulators to elevate his presidency to Messianic proportions while they displayed an endless parade of people entranced in ecstasy over this supposedly magnanimous accomplishment.
Magnanimous it was. Here was a man who, with virtually no experience relevant to the world's most important job, walked right in with global support. Here was a man with an endless sequence of non-specific promises read from a teleprompter able to sell himself to a public interested primarily in getting rid of what it had been led to believe was evil and responsible for all the ills of life: President Bush. Here was a man whose background (at least as much as he would permit to be disclosed, discovered, or discussed) gave every indication that he would deeply uproot much of what most Americans hold dear - freedom, responsibility, capitalism, accountability, transparency, limited control over individual lives, and so forth.
And here is a man who, as President, is being considered by rapidly growing numbers of Americans to be a dangerous disaster. And his failures present a troubling dilemma for much of the public: We worked so hard to get on this train and congratulated ourselves so profusely for climbing aboard. How do we get off?
The reasons people voted for Obama are as varied as the ways he is now failing. Nonetheless, for many whites, the relief of "white guilt" was a significant contributing factor. As former black militant Shelby Steele has brilliantly articulated in various books and articles, white guilt is the behavior of whites that attempts to regain a sense of moral authority presumed forfeited in an age of "white supremacy." It is the behavior (not the emotion) whites utilize to attempt to relieve themselves of the stigma of racism.
Blacks, he maintains, have generally learned two ways to negotiate power from whites using white guilt. Some ("bargainers") offer a deal in which they promise not to rub the country's racial past in the face of whites in exchange for power. Others ("challengers") tend to throw white racial history in the face of whites to extract their share of power. In A Bound Man, Steele claimed that Obama, as a classic bargainer, stood no chance of winning the presidency because the bargainer is required to mask his true nature in order to seal the deal. Steele guessed that the ordeal of the election process would not allow Obama to maintain his mask. Obviously, Steele seems to have guessed wrong.
Obama has described how he learned to navigate in a world of whites. Essentially, he discovered that by acting unthreatening and non-angry, his aura of intelligence would bring whites to him. Perhaps his history was one where he learned early that as long as he played the part he could essentially allow white guilt to propel whites to aggrandize him and comply with his wishes. This is the experience of one to whom few have ever said "no." And that same expectation of white cooperation has led and followed him both to and within the White House.
Yet, not so fast. While Steele may have underestimated Obama's supreme skill in masking himself during the election, Obama now seems to have met his match in executing the actual office. Much of what Steele predicted in terms of not being able to fool enough of the people is starting to prove correct. For many (not the hardcore devotees - yet), the reckless spending, lack of international leadership, absence of transparency, disregard for climbing national debt, freezing out of cabinet members and others in favor of handpicked yet unelected and unaccountable "czars," seizure of control of various businesses, appearance of having either no plans or the most naïve of plans on crucial foreign policy issues, improper manipulation of public understanding of the financial crisis, destroying healthcare under the guise of saving it, incoherent energy policy, global warming measures the rest of the world will not undertake, never-ending taxes and taking direct control of the Census are just a few of the clues that the Obama they thought they were electing was not the Obama they put into office. For many, his history, including his relationships with Reverend Wright, William Ayers, Rashid Khalidi and others, his training in Saul Alinsky's radical community organizing, his record as the most liberal Senator, his curious and difficult to independently verify past were merely insignificant nuances - not the red alert signs they would constitute with virtually any other candidate. The bargainer mask is quickly dissolving.
After six months of Obama as President, many have become palpably concerned, if not terrified, by the nation's choice of president. And that terror gives rise to a fascinating dilemma: how does America, if free to so choose, extricate itself from what it has done - as magnificent an accomplishment as we like to think it was?
Some argue that the polls indicate that while many may be beginning to disagree with some of Obama's policies, they still regard him personally in high esteem. Liberal pundits use this to suggest that there is no buyer's remorse, only a temporary process of working out the kinks in some courageous policies during some difficult and unchartered times.
Yet something deeper, perhaps, is developing. For those who invested great emotional energy in the "hope" of Obama, waking up to the "reality" of Obama is a painful task. As cognitive dissonance theory would inquire: how does one hold the image of the great savior in the face of the great disaster? How does one explain the exuberance experienced in saying goodbye to everything Bush and Cheney and otherwise "evil" while simultaneously realizing the country is now truly in far more dangerous hands? The fears the left wing media pushed into the minds of the public during the Bush years - that our allies dislike us, that Bush is controlling our lives, that Bush is to blame for Muslim anti-Americanism and jihadism, that the economy was headed in the wrong direction and so forth - look meager when compared to the real dangers that the left wing media now desperately struggles to hide from the public.
Cognitive dissonance would suggest that those disappointed Obama voters will struggle for quite some time to find some explanation as to why they like him and why he is still worthy of the presidency. Distinguishing Obama, as these polls do, from his policies is an understandable first step along these lines.
But what next? The problem with guilt, white or otherwise, is it affords no guidance itself on when enough is enough. Guilt is a tactic in a game made to last. One version has kept the Israelis and Palestinians perpetually locked in dance around the "peace process;" an elaborately disguised vehicle of continual extortion. Anywhere else, the trading of "peace" (or the cessation of violence) for an asset is called extortion and is punishable. Here, under the guise of a morally favorable movement towards the unobjectionable goal of "peace," it is labeled the "peace process." Holding together the entire structure of Palestinian "victimization" is the endless force of "guilt." And as soon as some truly final resolution appears possible, the guilt game dictates a retreat to square one. As long as guilt is the glue, true resolution defeats the purpose. The game must go on.
Guilt is the result of the accusation "you made me this way." The game of guilt requires the never-ending charge "you made me suffer." The game supports not just careers, such as those of challengers such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and "scholars" that pervade university campuses in minority and Middle East studies departments. The game is also the foundation of many political movements and parties. Without a villain responsible for all ills and, from whom to extract recompense, many movements would be forced to fold.
White guilt continues to flourish and to propel much of our politics. Democrats stamped out President Bush's attempts to appoint an Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court, Miguel Estrada, in a fashion that could never be utilized against Obama's choice of Sonia Sotomayor. Identity politics and reverse discrimination are simply by-products and tools of the guilt game. Some of Obama's campaign rhetoric referenced the notion of securing "reparations" for racial injustices of the past while his "tax the rich" and class warfare are further extensions of the guilt game. The fact that Sotomayor can finagle acceptance of her actions in the Ricci case is testimony to just how deeply installed is white guilt in the public's consciousness. Senator Barbara Boxer's recent racist episode in demeaning Black Chamber of Commerce leader Harry Alford demonstrated the ridiculous extremes to which some will allow white guilt to take them. Obama, himself, easily includes reference to black responsibility in his speeches. His policies, however, are steeped in manipulating white guilt.
The structure of the use of white guilt, as Steele describes, is to force whites to constantly prove the proposition "I am not a racist." And this is why the game is programmed never to end as one can never prove a negative, much less for all time. This is precisely what pushed Boxer into the foolish statements she made to Alford as she feebly attempted to demonstrate that she was not a racist. This is what Henry Louis Gates Jr. attempted to provoke from the Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley - to flip the story from a suspected burglary to the "racist" officer. And white guilt was attempting to elicit from Crowley an apology (hoping he would beg that he not be stigmatized as a racist) which he quite boldly resisted. And it is such a deep familiarity with white guilt that led Obama during a nationally televised press conference to declare that the police department acted "stupidly" without knowing any of the facts. While he initially tried to suggest and amplify this as an issue of racial profiling against blacks, in fact, by speaking without facts, it was Obama himself who engaged in a bitterly offensive racial profiling of and against white policemen. And it was Obama who, unable to rid himself of the narrative of white guilt, was also unable to deliver a full and direct apology for his words; opting instead (as did his partner in white guilt manipulation, Sonia Sotomayor) to cowardly obfuscate the issue with "regret" about the "impression" he gave. And it was Obama who continues to reinforce old familiar white guilt adages by infusing "race is still a troubling aspect of our society" into a situation which, for the police, had absolutely nothing to do with race. Far from change, Obama, unmasked, made it quite clear that his years around Wright, Alinsky, and others predictably made him exactly who he continues to be.
And insulating Obama from serious reflection on these matters is another consequence of the guilt game. While President Bush was castigated for a $350 billion stimulus package (recall that he turned over the second $350 billion to Obama), white guilt has kept the country virtually spellbound as Obama more than quadruples the damage. Bush was destroyed for getting us into Iraq and not having a plan to get us out all at the cost of American lives and treasure. Obama is on a similar path in Afghanistan and the liberal media does little more than an occasional CYA story to protect itself for the future. No credible president of the past could have ever sold the notion of partially measuring the economy on the basis of the immeasurable phantasm of "jobs saved." Such an insult to the intelligence of the American people is simply washed over by the media. Simply put, white guilt continues to be a major factor in protecting Obama.
While we, as a nation, have become comfortable in celebrating the great successes of black men, we have not yet learned how to fully integrate the failures of great black men. It was easy to relish the accomplishments of O.J. Simpson in his heyday; his fall brought tremendous racial strife to the nation. When a black congressman, William Jefferson, was found to have almost one hundred thousand dollars of cash in his freezer, he was given every benefit of the doubt as to his culpability. Congressman Charlie Rangel has an almost unfathomable number of ethics investigations endlessly languishing under Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Many a white man in public service has been thrown out at the barest hint of criminal behavior. Obviously, political party makes a difference as does consistency between one's acts and political promises. Nonetheless, in a nation which continues to be uneasy with the failure of blacks and unclear as to how to address their fall, Obama is still afforded significant insulation geared to protect him from all that would normally beset a man in his position.
The simple but immensely difficult and painful question America needs to answer is: When has white guilt run its course such that we can truly act in a "post-racial" world and address this presidency appropriately? Put otherwise, we can not be "post-racial" until we are ready to be "post-guilt."
As Steele points out, discrimination as a legal matter was eliminated decades ago. That does not mean that discrimination does not rear its ugly head any more than the fact that criminal theft or burglary statutes have not fully protected private property. Nonetheless, just as we do (at least for the time being) live in a country built on private property, we also live in one intended to be based upon equality. A "post-racial" world is not one in which no one recognizes the fact that others are of differing backgrounds. Nor can it ever become the utopia where no private judgments of others based on skin color occur (any more than people constantly judge others based on a wide set of often trivial criteria). Rather, a "post-racial" world is one where any such judgments are rendered virtually meaningless and of minimal consequence. It is one in which individuals affirmatively choose not to inject race into the ordinary difficulties of life. It is one in which the solution is not to invite more "conversation" but to refuse in the first place to charge "racism" and to demand whites prove they are not racist where race is irrelevant to the situation. It is one in which the game of white guilt has finally ended.
We are certainly not there yet. White guilt is all around. "Scholars" and professors like Gates and other challengers still banter on about the world of white supremacy while bargainers continue to promise whites protection from the memories of America's racist past; each of which takes focus off of the present. It is alive within Congress as well. Instead of addressing residual byproducts of past inequality of opportunity, white guilt and Obama pressure Congress to overhaul (some say destroy) our entire healthcare system- likely penalizing hundreds of millions to appear to assist perhaps tens of millions. And ACORN, Obama's community organizing troops set to be funded with billions of stimulus funds, has mastered the manipulation of white guilt in all of its activities. Obama has plenty of "teachable moments" left of which to take advantage. Perhaps he should teach by example; rewarding those who forego white guilt while coming down hard on those who manipulate it. Unfortunately, Obama's essence is so intimately entwined with white guilt maneuverings that our best lessons will likely arrive only upon his departure from office.
Needless to say, over the past decades, the country has made major advances in diminishing the severe racism that used to plague it. More can and will be done. Nonetheless, if Obama were white, there is little doubt that the public discourse would have already included terms such as impeachment, incompetence, criminal recklessness, fraud, liar, con-man, anti-American and so forth. And if anyone named Bush performed a small fraction of the acts Obama has to date, he would no longer be in office.
America must struggle to figure out how it can rid itself of its first black president who is destroying the foundations upon which the country was built. When it can do so without guilt and without challenge, it will have truly earned the glory it thought it achieved in electing Obama. Perhaps one of the many great things about America's electing Obama is that, finally, America, to rid itself of Obama, will be forced to stand up and rid itself once and for all of white guilt and rid its politics of the game of guilt itself.
Bill Siegel is the author of The Control Factor - Our Struggle to See the True Threat published by Hamilton Books.